What is a Holistic Review? All Your Questions Answered


At this point, most US colleges have implemented a holistic approach to their college admissions process. Instead of focusing on a number, admissions committees aim to understand who applicants are as individuals, specifically what they’re going to bring to the classroom and the campus community. 

What factors are considered in the Holistic Review?

As the name suggests, the holistic approach to admissions involves evaluating each applicant as a whole person, taking into consideration more than just your transcript and test scores. 

Dr. Allen Grove, an Alfred University English professor and a college admissions expert with 20 years of experience, shares what a holistic process means for students:

“Under a holistic admissions policy, a student with a 3.8 GPA might be turned down while an award-winning trumpet player with a 3.0 GPA might get accepted. The student who wrote a stellar essay might get preference over the student who had higher ACT scores but a bland essay. In general, holistic admissions take into account a student's interests, passions, special talents and personality.” - ThoughtCo

With that in mind, here are some of the different categories that admissions counselors consider:  

  • Academics - your transcript, including your grades and the courses you’ve taken 

  • Test Scores - your ACT/SAT scores, SAT Subject Tests, AP exams 

  • Extracurriculars - your community involvement, volunteer experience, sports, part time jobs, clubs, and more. Read more about extracurriculars here

  • Essays - your college admissions essay and any other writing supplements required by the college. See our guide to answering the Common App college essay questions. 

  • Recommendations - written by your teachers or guidance counselors. (If you haven’t requested your recommendations yet, take a look at our how-to guide.

  • New SAT Adversity Score - providing context for your application, including looking at your community, your neighborhood environment, family environment, and more. Learn more about the new SAT Adversity Score here

What do colleges say about their holistic approach? 

  • Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge 

“We carefully consider every student who applies to LSU. We seek to attract academically gifted students, as well as students who show promise and potential for college success."

  • Ohio State University 

“We’re looking for people who show evidence that they are not only smart but willing to lead; who see strength in diversity of people and ideas; who seek collaboration when solving problems; and who make use of all opportunities to figure out what kind of impact they want to have in the world.” 

  • Rice University

“The application has many areas of evaluation, and we are careful not to weigh any one section over the rest in our holistic review.” 

  • University of New Hampshire 

“The University of New Hampshire conducts an individualized, holistic review of applications with careful consideration of a student's academic achievements, personal qualities and the degree to which he or she takes advantage of available opportunities. “ 

What does the holistic approach mean for applicants? 

Overall, the holistic approach means that applicants are considered based on a number of factors, and those factors vary from school to school. According to Natasha Warikoo, an associate professor of education at Harvard University, “just because an applicant gets into one school does not mean the applicant will get into another. That’s why it makes headlines when a student is reported to have gained admission to all the Ivies. This is a rare, unexpected event.”

Warikoo also notes that there is an “arbitrary nature of how admissions decisions at elite colleges are made.” 

“Harvard rejects one in four students with perfect SAT scores. The University of Pennsylvania and Duke University reject three out of five high school valedictorians.” - MarketWatch

The holistic approach is another compelling reason to make sure your college essay is polished and personalized. Your college essay is your opportunity to demonstrate who you are, what your interests are, and what unique perspective you’ll bring to the college campus.  

Source:    Harvard University    Admissions

Source: Harvard University Admissions

Top Colleges that Use a Holistic Approach

  • Harvard University 

Harvard University’s admissions page is an excellent place to start when working to understand the holistic process. 

Its admissions page provides applicants with an idea of their approach, with categories including:

1) Growth and Potential

2) Interests and Activities

3) Personal Character

4) Contribution to the Harvard Community 

Each category includes a list of questions.Take a look at this list of questions to get an idea of what admissions counselors might be looking for. These questions might even help you when you’re writing your essay for other colleges.  

  • Yale University 

Yale University “considers each application as a comprehensive picture of that student.” When considering your application, the committee values challenging yourself. It “will not focus on whether you have taken any specific course. It will be far more interested to see that you have challenged yourself with difficult coursework, and have done well.” 

  • Princeton University 

As colleges work to increase diversity and bridge gaps in achievement, many are focusing on  under-served populations. Dean of Admissions at Princeton University Janet Lavin Rapelye shared that “The University’s ongoing commitment to increase the socioeconomic diversity of undergraduates, including those from first-generation and low-income backgrounds, is a priority and one of our initiatives is the reinstatement of the transfer admissions process this year.” 

Source:    Yale News

Source: Yale News

  • Columbia University 

At Columbia, major pieces of the admissions puzzle include your interests and what you bring to the classroom. “We read personal statements to try to understand each candidate and what motivates them. We read teacher recommendations carefully to understand a candidate's contributions in the classroom and what that candidate might offer their Columbia classmates.” 

  • University of Chicago 

For students who are worried about a lower test score or a couple of lower grades, University of Chicago emphasizes that “there’s no one piece of information that alone determines whether or not you would be a good fit for the College.” 

  • Stanford University 

Similar to many of the other colleges, at Stanford, “There is no minimum GPA or test score; nor is there any specific number of AP or honors courses you must have on your transcript in order to be admitted to Stanford.” 

  • Duke University 

Demonstrating the subjective nature of holistic admissions and criteria that depends on each individual school, Duke University shares, “We especially appreciate students who love thinking hard about things and who like to make a difference in the world.”

  • University of Pennsylvania 

UPenn admissions encourages students to be open and honest about who they are. They encourage students ”Let your application be yours, and yours alone. Help us discover who you are. Tell us your dreams. Share what’s important to you, and how you would flourish on Penn’s campus. Tell us your story, we’re listening.”

  • California Institute of Technology

Like UPenn, CalTech wants to know what your interests are, encouraging applicants to “take the opportunity in your application to tell us about how you will contribute to campus, both inside and outside the classroom!”


The Whole Person Behind the Application 

Rather than evaluating your abilities based only on grades and test scores, the holistic approach provides context to your application, seeing you as a person rather than a number. Meanwhile, “Keep in mind that even with holistic admissions, colleges will admit just those students who they think will succeed academically,” says Grove.